Publisher: GP Putman’s Sons
Summary: Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book—a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed—and punish the people responsible.
With overlapping stories of swashbuckling pirates and merciless assassins, The Reader is a brilliantly told adventure from an extraordinary new talent.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I picked this book out for the Asian representation (she’s on the cover! with monolids!) but unfortunately, I really struggled reading it. The basis of the world, an illiterate world where the idea of writing down information is unheard of, was an interesting premise. However, I wasn’t thrilled by the execution. I also found the main character, Sefia, bland and at times actively unappealing. Finally, I found the world building and magic extremely lacking.
First and foremost, I had problems with how this illiterate society works. Supposedly, this society is illiterate. No one reads, no one’s ever thought of writing things down. That’s fine, civilization operated like that for thousands of years. I can buy it. As a consequence, there’s a strong emphasis on story telling and on letting your name and story be told after you’re dead, as a way to be remembered. Huh. That’s actually a pretty cool consequence. I like it. Now introduce the secret society, that no only knows how to read and write, they’ve known for centuries. Wait what? And their mission is world peace? (through questionable means) What does keeping the ENTIRE WORLD illiterate have to do with attaining world peace? What benefit does that possibly bring? It was this fact right here that made reading the rest of the book difficult. I understand the author wants to explore an illiterate society, wants to write about a girl learning the wonders of reading for the first time, but the way that was done was just not great.
And this brings me to my next complaint. Sefia, the girl learning to read for the first time. At first, I simply found Sefia bland. The book begins with her aunt Nin get kidnapped by an unknown third party. Sefia, who’s watching from under some bushes vows revenge. However, as the book progresses, that’s all Sefia thinks about. Revenge. Despite being the main character and getting the most screentime, I easily found her to be the most boring of all the characters. Even the guard trio that for some reason got a chapter POV, full backstories and career trajectories, I found more interesting and fleshed out than her. Interspersed between Sefia’s chapters, we get chapters of a second character who’s been brought in as an apprentice to the Secret Reading Society. It’s through him that we learn how this Secret Reading Society functions (kind of), the kinds of resources they have, and most importantly, how their magic works. I would have happily read an entire book of just him and his adventures. Other times, I found her actively annoying and frustrating. One quote in particular sums this up quite well.
“Having been a loner all her life, Sefia hadn’t known what to do with the other children, so while they were playing Ship of Fools and gambling for copper ksipes, she stole their most valuable trinkets”
Wow, aren’t you just the coolest.
My final complaint is in the writing and world building. There are countries and societies named, and I simply had no way to tell them apart. That country is the blue country, this one’s red, they don’t like each other. Great. Sefia hails from one country, they’re currently sailing to another. Also great. But I never felt like knowing the names were relevant, and we were never really given any information that differentiated the lands apart. What are their cultures like? What about geography? How are they ruled? What kinds of cultures do they have? Are they ethnically homogeneous? Mixed? I will give the author credit for not simply making fantasy equivalents of pre-exisiting Earth cultures, but there really wasn’t much to differentiate the two apart.
As an aside, I wanted to make a remark on a small but rather crucial element to the story. Sefia teaches herself to read because her parents were safeguarding a book, but it’s only after Nin is captured that she opens it. She knows how to sound the letters out because her parents taught her when she was a child, but she struggles to learn how to connect those letters together. Effectively, she’s reading English. What crossed my mind when this happened was that Sefia is very lucky these books were written in a language with an alphabet and not something like Chinese where the characters have no relation to the sounds they make.
Overall, I rate this book a 2/5. This world has a gimmick (illiterate society), which was unfortunately not executed in a way that I would have hoped. I also found myself really disliking the main character Sefia. I also wished the author would have spent more time going into the intricacies of the world and the magic.